Human Trafficking of Immigrant Transgender Women: Hidden in the Shadows

Filed under: Featured,Slavery/Human Trafficking |

 

By Crystal DeBoise,

Most discussions of trafficking in persons elicit images of a young immigrant woman in peril. And while such images correctly remind us of the vulnerable situations faced by women who work in low-wage industries, we often forget that trafficking affects everyone, regardless of their gender or gender identity. The experiences and needs of transgender persons are almost never included in the conversation on human trafficking. My organization, the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center (SWP), offers advocacy and support to trans-Latina women who are abused by police and arrested for prostitution. Over the past year, we noticed a rash of police abuse against immigrant trans-women in New York City, many of whom came to the SWP to seek help. An already egregious problem got worse, as SWP heard more and more reports of unjustified arrests, beatings, and sexual assaults.  We interviewed these women and found a startling number of them met the legal definition for trafficking. But despite the numerous arrests they had endured for prostitution, law enforcement had never asked any of these women if they were being coerced into sex work.  Even the minors, who automatically meet the federal definition for human trafficking, had not been screened or identified as trafficked.  It was clear that immigrant queer and trans-women and girls are been trafficked into the sex industry and very little is being done about it.

One of our clients, “Sandy,” had a common experience: She is a 35 year-old transgender woman from Mexico who arrived in the United States in her twenties.  In her hometown, she had been ridiculed for her gender identity, and she was beaten and severely bullied most of her life.  Like many of her peers, Sandy dreamed of a life where she would be safe and accepted, and she looked for that life in New York City.  Once she was in New York, Sandy suffered an abusive arrest for prostitution and sought our help.  As she talked about her immigration experience, it became clear she was a survivor of human trafficking.  In Mexico, she had been unsure about how she could move to the United States with little money and no family support.  Ultimately, she was approached by an older man, seduced, and brought to New York City, supposedly, to be his girlfriend.  But once they were in New York, he quickly used violence and threats to force her into prostitution, and he took the money she earned.  She escaped after a year of this sustained abuse.  As is typical for many trafficked persons, Sandy was reluctant to tell us her story, as she was convinced we would not believe her. Currently, we are providing legal advocacy and social services support for Sandy as we pursue her legal rights as a survivor of human trafficking.

A combination of vulnerable situations, lack of economic opportunity, and a lack of awareness or interest on the part of law enforcement and many service providers translates into this void of attention to the rights and needs of trafficked trans-women.  Trans-women from a number of communities abroad lack social and political protections and may have to flee their home countries.  Those who do not have the means to move on their own are targets for traffickers who wish to profit from their desperation.  Current factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking include poverty, family violence, and political violence.  In the case of trans-women, we can broaden the dialogue to include homophobia and gender intolerance.

In addition, trans-women experience astronomical levels of discrimination, leading to few economic opportunities, even in the United States. Available jobs may have substandard or unacceptable working conditions.  These kinds of jobs are often underground and invisible and are fertile for abuse and exploitation.  This abuse often meets the legal definition of human trafficking.

Finally, lack of social power and political voice make immigrant trans-women of color vulnerable to police violence in a city where police violence is rampant.  Trans-women sex workers, and trans-women incorrectly profiled as sex workers, have likely been improperly arrested at some point in their lives.  In this context, there is no opportunity for law enforcement and victim to have a discussion about her life.  There is no common ground or trust.  Even though the police are supposed to come to the aid of crime victims, these victims are rendered so invisible by bias and discrimination that they have no chance of being identified.

It is crucial that police and other law enforcement work with informed human trafficking and LGBTQ organizations to increase sensitivity and the possibility of victim identification. And we must provide services and housing specific to the needs of LGBTQ persons who are survivors of trafficking in persons. For example, as far as we know, none of the trafficking shelter beds available in New York City are available for trans-women.  The public dialogue is overwhelmingly dominated by discussions of “girls” leading us to believe that trafficking is a crime exclusively against under-age cisgender (one whose sex at birth matches her gender identity) women, resulting in a narrow focus by those most likely to be able to lend a helping hand.  Meeting the needs of trans-women will also require specific outreach campaigns.

Human trafficking is a complicated issue.  Often the mythology of who is a trafficked person occupies the imaginations of politicians, the media, and the public.  Nevertheless, it is an abuse that no one should have to experience, and we must help victims who do not fit the images we as a society have already formed.  Visibility and identification of trafficked people gives them an option for a visa, free counseling, free legal assistance, and a variety of other benefits to help them recover and rebuild their lives.  It is imperative that we include immigrant trans-women of color in any legitimate conversation or action on human trafficking.

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Crystal DeBoise, LMSW is the Co-Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. She founded one of the longest running human trafficking services programs in the United States and has worked with survivors of gender-based violence since 1998.    

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